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The Lincoln Cabinet

April 2024
1min read

I would choose to be at one of the cabinet meetings of early 1865, as the Civil War was ending, when Abraham Lincoln, out of all the strange and glorious forces widiin him, had totally matured as a statesman-saint. An especially revealing meeting must have been the one at which Lincoln talked of an appropriation of four hundred million dollars, an immense sum for the time, to help the South recover. Though Lincoln had assumed virtually dictatorial authority over the conduct of the war, he did listen to his cabinet, even invited them to vote, and then from time to time outvoted them. “Seven no and one aye, the ayes have it,” was his legendary summation of the powers of the President vis-á-vis his cabinet. But the Lincoln cabinet meetings were far from the perfunctory sessions of the recent Presidencies. (I worked in the Carter White House for a year; there were four cabinet meetings while I was there, meaningless gatherings of forty to fifty people.) Lincoln’s cabinet dissuaded him from proposing his magnanimous Reconstruction grant. They felt the Congress wasn’t ready. Lincoln made it clear he would set aside the idea only temporarily. The dialogue must have illuminated the ways in which Lincoln, at the height of his powers, could strike the balance between “practical politics” and longer-range purpose and vision. I would like to have listened.

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